4 mins read

How Stress Affects Fertility

August 16, 2023

Fertility & Pregnancy

Couple holding a pair of baby shoes

You may be surprised to learn that stress could be one of the major factors affecting your fertility. In this article, we explore the link between stress and fertility, and offer practical advice for managing stress to boost your chances of conceiving.

Find your fertility tests

Stress is a natural response to challenging situations, but did you know that it can also have a significant impact on your reproductive health? Stress can interfere with several factors that are essential for fertility, including hormone production, ovulation, and sperm count. The negative effects of stress can be compounded by other lifestyle factors such as inadequate sleep, poor diet, and lack of exercise.

Understanding the Impact of Stress on Your Reproductive Health

Chronic stress can disrupt the balance of hormones that regulate ovulation, causing irregular menstrual cycles or even stopping them altogether – known as amenorrhea. Stress can also affect the quality of sperm, leading to a decrease in sperm motility, morphology, and count. Additionally, high levels of stress can lead to a decrease in libido and sexual function, making it difficult to conceive naturally[1].

Psychological stress can also take its toll on your reproductive health. Stress can increase anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions, which can further exacerbate fertility issues. 

6 Lifestyle Factors That Can Affect Your Fertility

How you cope with and manage your stress can impact your health and fertility. Here are 6 lifestyle factors influenced by stress that can impact your fertility and pregnancy.

  1. Diet

When you’re feeling stressed, it’s easy to opt for an unhealthy pick-me-up, such as fast food or sugary snacks, but did you know that certain foods can impact your fertility? Foods such as spinach, avocados, and nuts are rich in folic acid, which is important for both male and female fertility, while salty, processed foods can increase stress[2] and can lead to obesity which can impact fertility in both men and women[3].

Antioxidants are compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and other foods that can help to protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals and can help to improve the quality of both eggs and sperm. Some foods that are high in antioxidants include blueberries, spinach, kale, and dark chocolate.

In addition to antioxidants, there are other nutrients that are important for fertility. For example, zinc is essential for sperm production[4], while folic acid can help to prevent birth defects[5]

  1. Exercise

Regular exercise can have many benefits for our overall health, including improving cardiovascular health, reducing stress, and boosting mood. When it comes to fertility, moderate exercise has been shown to help increase blood flow to the reproductive organs, improve hormonal balance, and aid in weight management[6].

Exercise can also have a positive impact on male fertility. Studies have shown that men who engage in regular physical activity have higher sperm counts and improved sperm motility[7].

Exercise can also help improve the chances of successful fertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Women who exercise regularly before IVF have been shown to have higher success rates compared to those who do not exercise[8].

However, it’s important to find the right balance of exercise when trying to conceive. Over-exercising or engaging in high-intensity workouts can lead to decreased fertility, as it can disrupt hormone production and decrease sperm count. Women who frequently engage in intense exercise can experience RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), which can cause irregular or no menstrual cycle[9]. It’s recommended to aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, such as brisk walking, cycling, or swimming.

  1. Alcohol

Enjoying a drink with your friends and family can help you feel less stressed, but it might not be the best way to manage your stress if you’re trying for a baby. Although the NHS says it’s safe for women to drink 2-3 units of alcohol per day, studies have also shown that drinking alcohol decreases your chance of conceiving[10], so it’s best to avoid alcohol if you’re trying for a baby, 

The NHS advises pregnant women to avoid alcohol altogether, as alcohol passes to your baby through the placenta, causing damage to your baby’s developing organs and creating a risk of miscarriage[11].

Alcohol also affects male fertility, with men who drink large amounts of alcohol experiencing erectile dysfunction and reduced libido. High alcohol intake can lower your testosterone levels, causing lower sperm count and mobility[12], which will make it harder for you and your partner to conceive. 

  1. Sleep

A good night’s sleep can help reduce stress and is important for all aspects of our health, including fertility. When we sleep, our bodies undergo important processes that help us to maintain a healthy balance of hormones and regulate menstrual cycles. 

During sleep, our bodies produce important hormones such as luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which are essential for regulating our menstrual cycles and ovulation. These hormones work together to ensure that our ovaries release healthy, mature eggs each month.

In addition to regulating our hormones, sleep also plays a crucial role in reducing inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a variety of health problems, including infertility[13]. Getting enough sleep each night can help to reduce inflammation and promote a healthy reproductive system.

  1. Smoking

Smoking can have a profound effect on female fertility. Cigarettes contain chemicals that reduce oestrogen levels in your body, which can cause disruptions to your menstrual cycle, causing them to become irregular and making it harder to conceive and increasing the risk of infertility. 

Smoking has also been linked to a higher risk of ectopic pregnancy, where the egg is fertilised outside of the uterus. Smoking when pregnant can cause development complications for your baby, low birth weight and premature birth.

Men’s fertility is also affected by smoking. The chemicals in cigarettes can cause a reduction in semen volume, count, and motility, making it harder for men to conceive. Smoking also damages the DNA in sperm, which can lead to birth defects and health complications in the baby.

How To Test Your Fertility

You can check to see if your hormones are fluctuating as expected across your entire menstrual cycle with our innovative, advanced female hormone blood test, MyFORM™.

Your hormones work in an intricate network across your menstrual cycle with levels of the control hormones – follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH) – rising and falling to trigger your ovarian response hormones – oestrogen and progesterone. Measuring all 4 key hormones will help give you insight into any hormone imbalance that may be affecting fertility.  The test is ideal for women who are planning to start a family and want to know if their hormones are fluctuating as expected for their age. Suitable for women with a natural menstrual cycle who are not using any form of hormonal contraception.

Article references

  1. NHS: Low sex drive (loss of libido):https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/loss-of-libido/
  2. High amounts of salty, processed foods could double stress levels, study finds:https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/high-amounts-salty-processed-foods-could-double-stress-levels
  3. NHS: Body Weight and Fertility:https://www.buckshealthcare.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Body-Weight-and-Fertility.pdf
  4. British Nutrition Foundation: Male Fertility:https://www.nutrition.org.uk/life-stages/men/male-fertility/
  5. NHS: Vitamins, supplements and nutrition in pregnancy:https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/vitamins-supplements-and-nutrition/
  6. Physical Activity to Improve Erectile Function: A Systematic Review of Intervention Studies:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5960035/
  7. Study shows higher sperm counts in men who lift heavy objects:https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2023/02/men-who-lift-heavy-objects-have-higher-sperm-counts/
  8. Maternal physical activity before IVF/ICSI cycles improves clinical pregnancy rate and live birth rate: a systematic review and meta-analysis:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5803901/
  9. Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): Scientific, Clinical, and Practical Implications for the Female Athlete:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9724109/
  10. Does moderate alcohol consumption affect fertility? Follow up study among couples planning first pregnancy:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC28642/
  11. NHS: Pregnancy and alcohol:https://www.esneft.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Pregnancy-and-Alcohol.pdf
  12. Habitual alcohol consumption associated with reduced semen quality and changes in reproductive hormones; a cross-sectional study among 1221 young Danish men:https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/9/e005462
  13. Sleep and inflammation: partners in sickness and in health:https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-019-0190-z
  14. https://eje.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/eje/152/4/1520491.xml

This information has been medically written by Dr Thom Phillips

Thom works in NHS general practice and has a decade of experience working in both male and female elite sport. He has a background in exercise physiology and has published research into fatigue biomarkers.

Dr Thom Phillips

Dr Thom Phillips

Head of clinical services